Thought Leadership

A 2023 Farm Bill Q&A with NASDA Senior Public Policy Director RJ Karney

March 31, 2023
Franco Ripple

The battle is underway over one of Congress’ largest pieces of legislation – the federal farm bill.

Authorized by Congress every five years since 1933, the farm bill helps farmers and ranchers persevere through economic downturns, natural disasters, and agricultural trade imbalances, supports research and conservation, and provides critical nutrition funding for families. Direct Impact wrote in September 2022 about what to expect in the 2023 farm bill and some key advocacy tactics to ensure support for agriculture measures large and small.

To recognize March as National Agriculture Month, DI’s Vice President Franco Ripple spoke with RJ Karney, Senior Director of Public Policy at the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA), a leading national agriculture organization at the heart of the farm bill’s reauthorization.

Recognized by his peers as one of “The Hill’s Top Lobbyists” for multiple years, RJ shared his perspectives and NASDA’s priorities as the farm bill moves forward through Congress. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Franco: To start, what’s the big picture of the farm bill, and what are NASDA’s priorities for the legislation?

RJ: Looking at it from a big picture perspective, it’s a bill authorized every five years that impacts agriculture producers, rural economies, and beyond – every community that relies on food, fiber, and fuel. With that as the backdrop, NASDA’s main focus is a forward-looking and fully-funded bill that’s passed on time, by September 30.

Within that, the bill contains a few must-haves.

It must provide farmers, ranchers, and producers with a reliable safety net; it must provide consumers access to the safest, most affordable food supply; and it must remain a unified bill that secures our commitment to both American agriculture and critical food and nutritional assistance programs for those who need it most.

Further, let’s look at the farm bill through the context of the pandemic and find the silver lining of its impact. I think it’s safe to say the majority of Americans understand it’s an issue of national security to ensure that while our food supply chain may be battle-tested, it will remain strong and intact. So in instances like a pandemic, the war on Ukraine, and those pressure points, the farm bill is there to help maintain food supply chain for all of us.

That said, I’ll share two of NASDA’s top priorities. One of our farm bill priorities is securing robust funding for agriculture research and extension programs. This is an issue that has broad bipartisan support, and one we hear about constantly on the need to increase funding.

However, when the rubber meets the road, and when decisions for funding have actually taken place for the last several farm bills, ag research has unfortunately fallen to number 11 on a list of 10, to be honest. And that’s a problem – agriculture research and extension programs are critical because they ensure farmers and ranchers remain competitive through innovation, both domestically and within the global marketplace.

According to the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, China in 2016 outspent the United States in agriculture research by $3 billion. Our concern is that the U.S. will lose significant ground with our global competitors in the space of agricultural research.

Another NASDA farm bill priority is to double funding for the Market Access Program from $200 million to $400 million. This will allow for better promotion of America’s food and agricultural products in demand across the globe. It’s a great return on investment: for every $1 invested in the Foreign Market Development Program, $24 is returned in export revenue. This leads to positive benefits for farmers and ranchers, and creates more jobs in the farm and food sector.

Franco: What’s one issue that you think is under the radar in this farm bill?

RJ: With regards to cybersecurity, cyberattack spose risks for serious harm to businesses within the agricultural sector. This includes financial losses and loss of intellectual property.

In the 2018 farm bill, there was an authorized level of $200million per year for a cybersecurity consortium focused within the agriculture sector. However, Congress has never appropriated any money to establish this consortium; NASDA is looking to maintain this consortium within the farm bill and work with Congress to ensure that appropriation is authorized.

Franco: How can Congress most help America’s farmers and ranchers?

RJ: What Congress can best provide farmers, ranchers, and rural communities is certainty by passing a unified and robustly funded farm bill on time. This will ensure farmers and ranchers know they have a reliable safety net; for families at risk, they will know there’s food on the table – because the programs they would utilize will be there when needed most.

I’ll give an example of what’s at stake. When farmers and ranchers face disasters – for example, what we’ve seen recently in western states with severe drought that’s detrimental to the agriculture community – they were able to utilize disaster programs in the farm bill, knowing they were there to ensure their livelihoods would be sustained.

A big reason the farm bill is set for only five years is to allow Congress to reevaluate these programs. Within disaster programs, there are conversations on lessons learned from drought, hurricanes, wildfires, the numerous disasters that many farmers have faced. That lets Congress make programmatic changes to disaster assistance programs that will better provide certainty for ag communities.

Franco: Finally, what’s the single best way to advocate for your priorities?

RJ: It’s simple – sharing your story. Being able to talk to members of Congress and federal agencies about how their decisions impact you, your family, and your career on a personal level is so important. When sharing your story with policymakers, it takes the issues beyond the politics, beyond partisanship, and drills down to that individual level – it lets them see the impact of their decisions in creating laws and how those laws will be implemented.

That’s the greatest way to be an advocate.

For more on NASDA’s priorities in the 2023 farm bill, visit their public policy website.

RJ Karney joined NASDA in 2020 as Senior Director of Public Policy. In this role, he leads the organization’s public policy team to achieve sound policy outcomes that grow and enhance agriculture between state departments of agriculture, the federal government, and consumers. Prior to joining NASDA, RJ had a 16-yearcareer with the American Farm Bureau Federation where he held multiple positions including Director of Congressional Relations. Originally from Pennsylvania, he enjoys coaching his kids’ sports teams and finds relaxation in smoking meats, fish and cheese to share with friends.

Franco Ripple is a Vice President at Direct Impact, the nation’s leading grassroots firm. At the firm, he leverages nearly two decades of public and private sector experience in advocacy communications and stakeholder and coalition engagement to achieve client objectives. Franco previously served in senior communications roles at the Florida Department of Agriculture and has advised senior leader sat corporations and trade associations on strategic communications and public engagement, including Fortune 500 companies in the agriculture, energy, healthcare, and technology sectors.

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